Jon Gaither is a strong believer in the importance of educating all students about their constitutional rights. Since joining the ACLU of Maine, he has led nearly 200 lessons and taught more than 3,500 students from every county in the state. I met Gaitner when he spoke on a panel I moderated about disrupting authority. The event, hosted by Maine Humanities Council, is part of an ongoing series called Think + Drink.
I interviewed Gaither about his experience, and about what he has learned from and most enjoys about educating students about their constitutional rights.
When you were in high school, how aware were you of constitutional issues?
I was aware of some rights more than others. I was drawn to some of the free speech questions and some of those civil liberties issues. I was also in high school during 9/11. That’s when I first learned about the ACLU and became interested in some of the due process type questions as well. Having done this work now and talking to kids about different perspectives, I find that there are definitely more issues that I have realized are pretty important as well.
Is free speech typically the entryway for most students or are their interests more wide ranging than that?
I see two main routes. One is the free speech route and for a lot of kids, there is a lot of intellectual interest there. Then the other side is the privacy and search and seizure angle, which is more reflective of the experience that the kids have. That’s things like “What do I do if I get pulled over when speeding? What do I do if I am questioned by my principal for something?” Whereas on the free speech side, there is more intellectual ground to play on in a different way.
You mentioned that you have become aware of more issues as you have worked with students. What are some of those?
As my perspective has broadened, I’d say my attention to the student to prison pipeline has grown—this is the rise over the past 15 to 20 years of more police presence in schools, harsher disciplinary measures, and higher suspension and expulsion rates. Thinking about what this does for the whole system and what it does for kids is something I am interested in. Beyond that, there are a lot of racial components to this pipeline where there is disproportionate impact on minority populations. There is a whole other level of civil rights issues there that are intertwined with traditional civil liberties issues but are also unique in their own way.
You are going to schools to talk about constitutional issues. On one hand, I feel like this is an incredibly non-controversial activity as it is about—at its root—the constitution, but it is not always that simple. Are some schools more open than others to having the ACLU come and talk about these issue?
By and large, we have encountered very little resistance. There are a few schools that have been concerned because we are an advocacy organization. We are very careful to present the issues and ask the students make up their own minds about what they think. We have built up enough of a reputation with schools where they know that we are not come in to oversell ourselves. But to the controversial side, it is something I like to embrace. The best workshops I have ever led are the ones where there are kids on both sides of the issue and they’re passionate—where they are discussing, arguing, and realizing that there is a lot of nuance. I think there are some schools that have a general philosophy of not wanting a lot of controversy or highly charged conversations. Most schools—and most teachers—will embrace that so they’re generally fine with us visiting controversial topics.
What topics do you find students divided on?
Free speech is certainly one, but when we get into more hateful speech we have seen interesting conversations about the Westboro Baptist Church and things like that. Conversations about speech the students don’t agree with, and whether or not that should be allowed, are always interesting. Some of the privacy issues are interesting too. Students are generally understanding of the pressures on police, and so when we talk about privacy issues, there are students who question whether the rights we have when dealing with police are worth having. Are we offering too much leniency is given to potential guilty people? Within those issues, there are definitely people on both sides who have strong views.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of this work?
When I go into a class, I get a sense early on of what the students know and don’t know. It is really rewarding to walk out of the class and feel that the students have walked away better aware of some basic rights that they have. Then they can exercise those rights more effectively. Feeling like they are accessing these key pieces of information they should have but may not already have is the most rewarding thing for me.